Monday, May 22, 2006

Recently I visited Concord in search of Henry David Thoreau. The little house he built for twenty-eight dollars, twelve-and-a-half cents no longer stands. Still, you’ll know the spot, and not merely by the stone markers. More likely by the many soul-seekers, devoted to living deliberately too, perched around the invisible shack like so many spiritual vultures in search of a carcass. Looking hungry, their sharpened pencils poised above their journals, ready to impale any morsel of Thoreauian truth left rotting in the ruins of his old stone hearth. While Thoreau might not have minded his elevation from hermit to saint, he would certainly have rejected the softening of his jagged edges by fuzzy-headed modern-day sentimentalists.

Yes, there is something undeniably appealing to Thoreau’s mantra: “simplify, simplify, simplify.” Looks good on the T-shirts on sale in the gift shop at Walden Pond. But even our ideas of simplicity have gone utterly rococo. Nowadays you hire someone to simplify your life for you. Perky “professional organizers” echo the sage’s “less is more” philosophy, urging us to “say goodbye to things that don't fit, are out of style or are unflattering.” How thoroughly Thoreauian! Today’s Professionally-trained simplifiers suggest consolidating your credit cards as well, “and in the future use only one or two.” “Don’t buy dry-clean-only clothes,” “screen your calls,” and “watch TV on your own terms.” Henry would have been proud.

Truth is, as Thoreau well knew, it’s hard work living outside of society, and not only materially. Especially in today’s wired world. We may like the idea of Walden on the surface, but Thoreau took self-reliance seriously, to an extreme most of us would find suspicious if not outright scary. Not to worry. Nowadays the same manly men who bloviate about self-reliance from behind the wheel of their monster SUVs are reduced to bed-wetting by three-dollar-a-gallon gas prices. Not only do we not grow our own food, we don’t even know how to light a fire to cook it. We can’t drink hot coffee without detailed warnings and an instruction manual. Is it any wonder we choose empty promises of protection from unseen enemies over the risks of real personal freedom? We’re a nation of obligate parasites. Independent we are decidedly not.

After visiting Walden, I sat down with “Civil Disobedience,” eager for insights into what could be shaping up as a new era of protest, not because people are any more enlightened, but because our government on all levels is ever less so. The essay holds few clues as to how to organize an army of more than one, but Thoreau’s faith in his army of one is unshakable. “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right,” he preaches, “changes things and relations.” For tenacious, uncompromising, and not very likeable Henry David Thoreau protest was a way of life: the hard way. He’s proof that really “speaking truth to power” isn’t pretty. Despite what today’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too pros may say, it’s always out of style and unflattering.

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